October 2013 Cuttings

"Cuttings" is your source for garden updates and horticultural tips from Reeves-Reed Arboretum's horticulture staff. Check back monthly to find out what's blooming at the Arboretum, get the inside scoop on upcoming events, and learn some timely tips you can put to use in your own garden.

The Importance of a Garden Notebook

It's the time of year when the change in seasons becomes palpable: the air smells different and feels cooler, leaves start turning (and falling), and the perennials in your garden start winding down for their long winter's nap. Now is the perfect time to assess your garden and make plans for next year: what works, what doesn't, what do you like or not like and why, what needs thinning, dividing, or beefing up. But how do you remember what's in the ground if you can't see it, or where you bought that fabulous plant that blooms in the spring that you like so much, better yet what was it called? What do you do when you divide that perennial and end up unearthing your prize tulip bulbs because you forgot where they were? Record keeping is just as important to gardening as weeding and watering.

Good gardeners use good tools and, for me, my number one tool is a notebook. I carry it with me in the garden to jot down notes and ideas, scribble drawings or diagrams, or just make observations. When I visit other gardens my notebook is the first thing to go into my bag, and sometimes I toss an extra one in just in case. The greatest gardeners I've worked with all carry notebooks in their pockets - not just at work, but when they visit other gardens, too.

A page from my garden notebook with drawings and notes on a flower bed arrangement (photo by D. Wiles)

The next best tool is a camera. A camera can record your garden in all the changing seasons whether you photograph it every week or every month. But while a photograph captures what is in the ground and where at that moment, it won't record your thoughts. Maybe that perennial was a bit too thuggish and crowded its neighbors? A photograph won't tell you that. Cameras also have the insufferable habit of running out of battery just as you're about to take a great photo. What's a gardener to do? See above on the importance of notebooks. You don't have to be a great artist to draw in a notebook – the record is for you so scribble away! Both tools are invaluable for making improvements to your garden.

I sketched the construction of this habitat box on a visit to Beth Chatto's garden in England after the battery in my camera went out. (Photo by: D. Wiles)

I use my notebooks to make notes on new plants I meet, what they look like, how big they get, suitable (or not-so-suitable) companions, etc.

(Photo: D. Wiles)

One drawback to keeping a notebook in your pocket when you're a gardener is there is a chance the pages will get wet or dirty. There are companies out there who produce notebooks of all shapes and sizes with waterproof paper. I've used them in a light rain with a pencil and the writing remains clear and legible. Reviewing your notes is also a great form of time travel – every time I look in my notebooks I'm instantly taken back to the place and time when the notes were made: working in the garden at Great Dixter in England, at the Hampton Court Flower Show, garden classes at many of the gardens around Philadelphia and visits to gardens in my native California (why won't all those great plants grow here!?).

So before you start your end of season chores, I urge you to put down your trowel and get a notebook! Start recording what's in your garden, what you want to see there, where it came from and when it was planted. This time next year you will have it all at your fingertips and will have a head start on the year ahead.